The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hillman, District Judge
This matter comes before the Court upon the application of the Plaintiff, Frederick Carlton "Carl" Lewis, for a preliminary injunction barring Defendants from removing his name from a primary ballot. Plaintiff contends that the provision of New Jersey's state constitution relied upon to remove his name from the ballot violates the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. On April 28, 2011, after a hearing and oral argument, the Court concluded Plaintiff failed to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the merits, in that Sununu v. Stark, 383 F.Supp. 1287 (D.N.H. 1974), aff'd mem., 420 U.S. 958 (1975), was binding and controlling precedent. The Court further opined that even if the Supreme Court's summary affirmance of Sununu were not controlling precedent, this Court would apply a strict scrutiny standard, adopt the reasoning of the Sununu three judge panel, and find that the constitutional provision at issue furthers a compelling state interest. In this Opinion, the Court will provide a written explanation for its April 28, 2011 oral decision.
On April 11, 2011, Plaintiff Frederick Carlton "Carl"
Lewis*fn1 , in accordance with New Jersey election law, filed his nomination petition seeking to have his name placed on the ballot for the June 7, 2011 Democratic Party Primary Election for the office of New Jersey State Senate, 8th Legislative District. Several days later, William Layton and Ted Costa, interveners in this action, contested the validity of Plaintiff's candidacy. They specifically argued that Plaintiff did not meet the state constitution's four-year durational residency requirement for the office of state senator. After a hearing on April 20, 2011, an administrative law judge determined the challengers of Plaintiff's candidacy failed to prove that Lewis did not meet the residency requirement. Several days later, on April 26, 2011, Defendant Secretary of State Kim Guadagno (hereinafter "Defendant") reversed the decision of the administrative law judge and concluded that Plaintiff was not a resident of the State of New Jersey for the constitutionally prescribed time period. Thus, Plaintiff's name was ordered removed from the ballot. On the same day, April 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Verified Complaint in federal court alleging that Defendant Secretary of State's decision violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment and the New Jersey Civil Rights Act. Plaintiff additionally filed a Motion for a Temporary Restraining Order and Order to Show Cause Why a Preliminary Injunction Should Not be Entered. After a hearing and oral argument on April 28, 2011, the Court denied Plaintiff's Motion.
This Opinion is intended to supplement the Court's oral decision
denying Plaintiff's Motion. Plaintiff requested that the Court enter a
preliminary injunction enjoining Defendants Atlantic County Clerk,
Burlington County Clerk and Camden County Clerk (hereinafter
"Defendant County Clerks") from printing or mailing the primary
election ballots without his name. In support of his Motion, Plaintiff
claimed that the New Jersey State Constitution's four-year residency
requirement for a candidate for the office of state senator violated
the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.*fn2
The Constitutional provision states, in pertinent part, that
"[n]o person shall be a member of the Senate who shall not . . .
been a citizen and resident of the State for four years . . . before
his election." N.J.S.A. Const. Art. 4, § 1, ¶ 2. In response to
Plaintiff's claims, Defendants Secretary of State and Attorney General
contended that the Court should abstain under the Pullman and Younger
doctrines.*fn3 The Defendants further argued that if
the Court declined to abstain, it should deny Plaintiff's Motion
because he fails to demonstrate a likelihood of success on the
In Railroad Commission of Texas v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941), the Supreme Court stated that when considering whether to abstain, a court shall consider three specific preconditions: "(1) uncertain issues of state law underlying federal constitutional claims brought in federal court, (2) state law issues amenable to interpretation that would obviate the need for or narrow the scope of the federal constitutional claims, and (3) conditions such that an erroneous federal court interpretation of state law would disrupt important state policies." Ohad Assocs. v. Twp. of Marlboro, No. 10-2183, 2010 WL 3326674, at * 3 (D.N.J. Aug. 23, 2010) (citing Chez Sez III Corp. v. Twp. of Union, 945 F.2d 628, 631 (3d Cir.1991)). "In addressing an abstention claim, a district court must first consider whether the particular case falls within the ambit of Pullman as defined by these criteria, and must then make a discretionary determination, based on the weight of these criteria and other relevant factors, as to whether abstention is in fact appropriate." D'Iorio v. Delaware County, 592 F.2d 681, 686 (3d Cir. 1978).
The Court concluded that the present matter failed to implicate the first and third prongs of Pullman. With respect to the first prong, the issue before the Court, while important to the parties, was exceptionally narrow. The Court only decided whether New Jersey's constitutional provision requiring candidates for state senate to reside in New Jersey for at least four-years was, on its face, violative of the federal constitution. This question is purely one of federal law, which can be resolved entirely without opining on, or resolving, any issue of state law. Consequently, the Court did not need to address any uncertain issues of state law.
The third prong was also not implicated. The Court did not interpret any provisions of state law, but merely determined whether the provision in the state constitution violated the Equal Protection Clause. Furthermore, in the present matter, the Court concluded that the provision did not violate the Fourteenth Amendment. Therefore, the Court's decision did not disrupt any state interests.
"Under Younger v. Harris, 401 U.S. 37 (1971), federal courts must abstain in certain circumstances from exercising jurisdiction over a claim where resolution of that claim would interfere with an ongoing state proceeding." Miller v. Mitchell, 598 F.3d 139, 145 (3d Cir. 2010). Abstention, however, is only appropriate "when (1) there are ongoing state proceedings that are judicial in nature; (2) the state proceedings implicate important state interests; and (3) the state proceedings afford an adequate opportunity to raise federal claims." Kendall v. Russell, 572 F.3d 126, 131 (3d Cir. 2009).
In rendering its decision on abstention, the Court was especially mindful of the delicate balance between state and federal interests. Specifically, the Court recognized that the underlying principles of Younger are grounded in notions of comity, and the idea that, in some instances, federal courts should not interfere with state courts or state sovereignty. Although a literal application of Younger may suggest this Court should abstain, (1) the binding Supreme Court authority addressing the narrow issue ...